COLUMBUS — A better effort, for sure, but the same frustrating result for the Winnipeg Jets, who are long past the point of so-called moral victories and need to start getting some that actually count in the standings.
It looked like that might happen Wednesday night, but once again they found a way to lose. The Jets blew three different one-goal leads before ultimately falling 4-3 to the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena.
Oliver Bjorkstrand’s second goal of the game with just over five minutes left in the third period was the dagger. He bounced past defenceman Dmitry Kulikov and roofed a shot past goaltender Laurent Brossoit to complete the comeback.
"That one is definitely frustrating. A sharp angle like that, I don’t care. I’d like to have that one," was Brossoit’s post-game take.
"I think plain and simple, I can’t let that happen," said Kulikov, the veteran blue-liner who got badly burned.
And yet, these kinds of mistakes keep happening, and compounding. The Jets have now dropped four straight games, and have just five wins in their past 18 outings to sit at 25-22-4. That includes getting thumped on home ice by Tampa last Friday, then losing all three on this road trip to Chicago, Carolina and Columbus.
‘It’s beyond frustrating’ ‐ Jets captain Blake Wheeler
"It’s beyond frustrating. You guys are asking me the same questions, obviously, after a game, but you can answer them with a little bit of dignity after the last two games. The Tampa and Chicago games, we didn’t like one bit, but I don’t know if you can give more than we’ve given the last two nights," said captain Blake Wheeler.
Indeed, this will go down as one of the Winnipeg’s better efforts in recent weeks, but that was of little solace to players and coaches in a results-oriented business, as they remain outside the Western Conference playoff picture.
For that reason, perhaps an eight day hiatus for the all-star break and player’s break is coming at the perfect time.
"Get the hell home, don’t spend 10 more minutes thinking about this game. They need some rest to recuperate," said coach Paul Maurice.
Columbus improves to 27-16-8 with their sixth straight win. They’ve been the hottest team in the NHL, going 16-2-4 over their past 22 contests.
The Jets got the kind of start they were looking for as Mason Appleton opened the scoring at 4:38 of the first period. A shot attempt from Mathieu Perreault bounced off the leg of Columbus defenceman Scott Harrington and right on to his stick. Appleton fired the puck past Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins for his second of the season.
The advantage was short-lived, as all-star defenceman Seth Jones responded for the home team just 88 seconds later on a great individual rush, cutting hard to the net and beating Jets Brossoit through the five-hole.
"I thought we came out right. Scoring the first goal is big. From there we liked our game, there was a lot of good hockey. Just a couple things to clean up through the neutral zone and things like that. This one stings," said Appleton.
Kyle Connor put Winnipeg back out in front at 17:06, deflecting a point shot from Anthony Bitetto for his team-leading 25th goal of the season, but Bjorkstrand tied it up early in the middle frame, taking advantage of an Andrew Copp turnover at 1:28.
Back came the Jets, this time on the power play at 15:33. Neal Pionk’s shot went through a maze of traffic for his fifth of the year, snapping a dreadful skid in which Winnipeg had come up empty on 13 straight man advantages.
But then fourth-line centre Nick Shore took a foolish penalty, slashing the stick out of a Columbus player’s hands for the obvious interference call. And Gustav Nyquist took advantage at 17:55, swatting home a loose puck that had trickled through Brossoit’s legs following a shot from Pierre-Luc Dubois.
"Every time we seemed to get the lead, they get a quick answer and tie the game. That was going on the whole game," said Kulikov.
The Blue Jackets seemed to be coming on strong in the third period, with the Jets spending much of it in their own end, looking like they were trying to hang on. Any hopes of at least getting it beyond regulation and salvaging a point were erased by Bjorkstrand, who got by Kulikov’s attempt to hit him along the wall.
"Didn’t fare so well," is how Maurice described the play.
The Jets were unable to find the equalizer despite pulling Brossoit for an extra attacker in the final couple minutes. He stopped 25 of 29 shots he faced.
"When you lose a couple in a row it’s gut check time. You put the soft play away and really get to work. And I thought we did that. We didn’t like our result in Carolina but we liked a lot of our game, we played a man’s game and played hard for three periods. (Wednesday night) I thought we played a pretty hard game, it just sucks to lose," said Appleton.
"You take away things that you’re happy with and there’s positives, but at the end of the day it’s getting the points, that’s what matters. It’s going to sting over the break, hopefully flush it and really figure out what kind of team we are."
Maurice elected to stick with the same lineup that fell 4-1 in Carolina on Tuesday night, with the lone exception being Brossoit in goal over Connor Hellebuyck. That meant forward Kristian Vesalainen and defencemen Cam Schilling and Nelson Nogier were the healthy scratches.
However, Maurice did make an interesting in-game adjustment to two of his lines. Wheeler was put with Appleton and Copp, while Jack Roslovic moved to centre between Nikolaj Ehlers and Mathieu Perreault.
"The last two games I understand. They played hard. You want to walk off the bench, you’re pissed that you lost the game but you want to have a little bit of a pride in the way your hockey team played. I thought the last two games, yeah we made mistakes, we got out-manned in a couple areas, but they played their asses off the last two nights, they really did," said Maurice.
The Jets flew home after the game and will now part ways until they return to action on Jan. 31 at Bell MTS Place against Boston. Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele will represent Winnipeg in this weekend’s all-star festivities in St. Louis.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Wednesday, January 22, 2020 at 9:31 PM CST: Adds photos
11:15 PM: Final version.